Drawing I: Assignment two (final piece)

Assignment 2: Four pears. 2012. Pastel on beige-grey paper. 47.5 x 35.5cm (for the slightly amended version see below)

This Assignment took at least a day in total. At first I tried capturing the chillies on the box which turned out disastrous and boring. I got increasingly frustrated and seemed to go into a destructive mood where I just wanted to screw it up so that I could throw it into the bin.

The next day 4 pears caught my eye. They are those Chinese really tasteless pears that always catch me out because their shape is so voluptuous, full and delicious that it seems unimaginable they taste of nothing. I wonder what those pears are used for in Chinese cuisine. Maybe they have a way to prepare them so their taste matches their beauty?

Sketchbook entry: Composition sketches

I had a go at some compositions, sometimes with 3 and with 4 pears, with a deep plate and just with the kitchen towel. In the end I decided the shapes are so great that I liked almost all of the compositions, meaning I couldn’t decide. So I asked my son which number from 1-7 and #7 it was (he’s just 2 and always repeats the last words, I suppose).

What went well:

  • I love the colour combination on this grey-beige pastel paper. The light pink in the background – which is an imagination – made a particular difference. Given that the main colours where green-yellow of the pears and blue-white of the towel I had thought I needed a soft version of the complementary colour to the main subject (greenish). So I tried the pink as red’s soft companion. I restricted the palette to green, white, blue and pink, but rubbed, hatched and stippled in a lot of other colours – especially in the shadows.
  • Pastels where a great choice for a homely, muted atmosphere and I discovered again that I should try out pastels on coloured paper much more. I really love them. I don’t have many colours, for example a medium brown would have made things easier. But working with them felt very sensual. Hatching over a pastel “wash” is quite an effective way to suggest volume. I remembered we were supposed to think of the panes of each object.
  • I tend to make everything too similar, so this time I tried to treat each pear as an individual. That mindset works wonders since you start seeing the differences between the 4 pears instead of just thinking “yeah, it’s a pear times four”.

What didn’t go so well:

  • The pear in the back on the right was so tricky. It lacked the highlights and clear darks the others had. Not sure if it turned out convincing. The rendering of the left side of the front left pear is quite heavy handed. So are several of the folds if I am picky. But I really cannot see anymore… I need some distance.
  • The composition is too symmetric (my typical symmetry trap). The towel stripes go basically from front to back like a landing strip. In the lower two corners of the paper the white of the towel cuts the vertical edges almost at the same height. The same holds true for the blue strips cutting the bottom edge in a very symmetric way. Not good. If you know it you keep staring at it. This was even worse before …

Ok this annoyed me so much as I was writing about it I reworked the lower right corner. Only during this drawing I became aware of how much room for change pastels give you. As long as you got good paper you can change things quite a bit. This is the changed final version (I try not to rework it for a week like my fish):

Assignment 2: Four pears. 2012. Pastel on beige-grey paper. 47.5 x 35.5cm (2nd version)

I think this works better but I start not being able to see any more, so I will stop here. I guess I created a different symmetry with the blue landing strips now both curved inwards but it’s not half as annoying as the initial version.

What I learnt:

  • Because my computer desk had natural light for much longer than my drawing desk I had set up my pears directly in front of the computer. This was an awesome idea because I couldn’t access the computer as that would have been impossible without moving my towel folds. A good way to focus, I can recommend it.
  • Check for unwanted symmetries that I create unconsciously, either in the set-up or in the way I draw. Symmetrical things tend to be a bit boring, or at least not dynamic. Beware of landing strips.
  • Again: don’t be precious with your drawing. If something is wrong, change it as best as you can.

Update 2 weeks later:

I had this picture pinned on my wall for a week or two and found fault with the “mechanical shapes” of most of the pears. They looked a bit like they have been turned in a carpenter’s workshop. So I changed it again and also made the bottom left corner slightly less defined. The latest version is much better in my view.

Assignment 2: Four pears. 2012. Pastel on beige-grey paper. 47.5 x 35.5cm (final version)


Surprise: The fish again

Fish on paper, ca A3

I changed the fish again… Yes, I know… I also lost count of the versions.

This time I thought that the colour contrast between saturated and unsaturated colours was still not strong enough. Since the fish was already unsaturated, so I upped the colour even more in the background (pink and orange) and darkened the background to the right side of the fish, though the shadow in reality was a bit different going from upper left to lower right. Anyway… is that the last version? Probably yes.

That brings me to another question… what’s the difference between drawing and painting? Opaque colour and brush for the latter? In that case this watercolour+plenty of gouache would qualify this picture as painting? I find the distinction somewhat artificial. Chinese painting seems more like a kind of drawing by some people’s standards… In the end it’s not really important as long as the world created works somehow.

Back to the fish once more…

I was very bored with my fish after looking at it for a couple of days. I think it was too spelled out, too much of the same colours, too much of a light-dark contrast that distracted. It had too many things fighting for attention including the dark background. So I changed it with gouache since I needed a bit of opacity.

Fish: State 2 versus current state 3

Ignore the colour difference – in state 2 my camera saturated it a wee bit too much and in state 3 a bit too little. The truth is somewhere in the middle in terms of colour saturation. But I changed some things:

  • I lightened up the lower left corner. It was all a bit too same same and the eye couldn’t concentrate on the fish. I might change it even more.
  • I lessened the paper crease shadow tone. I think it was a bit too prominent.
  • I gave both head and fish tail a partial white wash to make the eye focus on the belly in the centre of the picture.
  • In reality the fish tail was pretty much like in state 2 with the lower part surprisingly short compared to the upper, which looks odd since the fish is tilted and should get smaller in the back. So I corrected this. I am not illustrating a fishery handbook after all. I don’t even know what fish my fish was. Kind of sad.

I will let it sit for a day or so.

Then I couldn’t wait as I had an idea, when my mind returned to Petrov-Vodkin … I changed the colour of the background into a pinkish orange-white. I realised I needed a contrast in colour to the blue-grey that dominated the picture everywhere. Petrov-Vodkin had this extraordinary pink which made the fish in its rather colourless state stand out. My orangey pink is not half as saturated but I leave it like this because I want the yellow of the fish fins and belly to be more exclusive in terms of colour standing out.

Fish on paper: Final version (watercolour overlaid with gouache, roughly A3)

I think it works better than the previous 2 versions above as it doesn’t distract so much from the main subject of the picture – the fish. The dark contrasting background just pulled the eye away.

What did I learn?

  • Just because I know I can draw that doesn’t mean I have to meticulously draw everything and its dog. Dare to be vague on some things and use drawing as a contrast in Itten’s sense … so there should be things that are “not drawn” as well.
  • Check what the eye’s walking path is. If the eye gets lost or is confused, then something is wrong.
  • If something is wrong, I shouldn’t be precious about how long I painted on this wrong part or how much I love a certain mark or colour in there. Wrong remains wrong – change it. I think that’s what I love about gouache and especially oil paint. You can feel your way into the picture, live with it, let it change as you get to know this new world a little better.

Drawing I: Assignment two (preliminary sketches)

Task: You are free to use your subject matter (it’s got to be a still life though) and drawing media, but you must demonstrate

  • understanding of use of colour
  • understanding of the most appropriate medium
  • skill of using the respective medium
  • interesting composition
  • variety: mark-making, depth, contrast, tone
  • accuracy and understanding of form

Tasks for myself at the moment (only the first is a must for me for this assignment, the rest are optional here):

  • try a more free drawing style, expressive – away from ultra-controlled
  • try coloured media that I neglected: pastels, inks
  • try drawing with unusual tools, stamping, printing… but also dip pens (haven’t done that very much or with the wrong paper, which would tear)

I noted fellow OCA student Jane Wellington’s final assignment blog entry in which I particularly loved the smaller sketchbook drawing of the fish on a stylized plate. I love the freedom of it and the increased contrast of line vs tonal drawing.

In my first sketches I wanted to find subject matter and composition.

Finding subject and composition: Cup, chillies and towel (sketchbook entries)

Sketches #1 and 2 felt a bit boring for my liking so I messed up the towel a bit to throw nice folds juxtaposing the upwards line that the chillies draw. Also the cup in #3 sits better in the picture. In 1 and 2 the scene feels less intimate, as the objects are placed with more background. Then I made a slightly bigger sketchbook drawing with – quelle surprise – water-soluble coloured pencils. Given I wasn’t exactly fond of them I admit they have their right of existence.

Finding subject and composition: Cup, chillies and towel (bigger sketchbook entry based on sketch # 3)

After fussing so much about the items that I drew, always thinking which was the item to buy that would make my drawings – I obviously am aware that drawing makes a drawing and the subject matter is really secondary. So for this assignment I wanted to use whatever was there. And there were plenty of chillies in the fridge. They were even more pretty when they were still plump a week ago, but slightly dried up they gained a different beauty.

Finding subject, composition, media: My wooden pastel box, chillies and towel (sketchbook drawings)

I think I will go with the wooden box and chillies, largely because it had a strong structure and felt natural yet artificial at the same time. I cannot quite put my finger on it. But the box with the orderly lined up chillies needed a more vibrant background, so I pushed the towel this and that way. Looking at the straight blue towel line going from lower left to vanish underneath the box, I am inclined to think this should be round somehow… organic … versus all the boxy straightness.

In terms of media I was thinking I could try a mixed media piece. For example soft pastels or coloured pencils or even just graphite pencils for the background cloth, throwing soft folds, while the chillies should be wet, more shiny – maybe watercolours? For the wood I could try to make it very artificial, maybe even a line drawing. I will think about this over lunch and come back to it afterwards.

Project: Drawing animals – Check and log

What were the main challenges of drawing animals?

They are moving targets. So you keep restarting and changing the drawing. There is a reason why Cranach with his rather tight way of drawing chose to draw dead birds. They tend not to move. However I am assuming Dürer’s hare was alive and Dürer is the king of tight and controlled drawings. So that should not be an obstacle. For alive animals I mostly played it safe and “killed” them first by freezing them into a photograph. Maybe Cranach would have done the same, if he had a camera back then. Is that a bad thing? I think it is legitimate – however the pictures may suffer from the stiffness I noticed about my drawings, because I have time to doodle and get lost in unnecessary details. From that perspective it is worth having a limited time at hand.

Which media did you enjoy using most and which did you feel were best for the subject matter and why?


Pigs (from picture I took at the zoo), pencils

Duck. Watercolour and gouache on rice paper. 43 x 32cm.

Final: Fish

I enjoyed most the poster colours on the thin paper. It was the most fiddly too as it was so very see-through thin. Or maybe I just liked my paradise duck? I liked the body that gouache give to animals. They feel solid. But watercolour does kind of the same like the “wash-style” I used poster colours with.

The fish feels more laboured than the duck and it was. But then it was painted from life. The duck was painted from a photograph and there is already a decision made on how to depict this universe. So it is much easier. I suppose that painting convincingly from photographs where you alter what you see in the photo may be the ultimate challenge – not sticking with the pictorial solution that is already spelled out.

The biro sketch of the dove was quite a pleasure too. In the previous section I discovered and now admit my lack of love for coloured pencils (water soluble or not) or for oil pastels. The former are just so soft, like a tepid handshake without life. Though I could imagine them for a very delicate drawing of a very delicate thing … say of peaches. (Hmm… I like the idea and will consider for the final Assignment of section 2). Oil pastels on the other hand are quite loud. They smear. They are not my friends. But then for an expressive – NOT detailed – coloured piece they could actually be quite nice. Maybe I just tried to will all used media into my current style of minutely spelling all things out and filling the entire background, leaving no white? There is something to this observation.

Celery, strawberries and lemon. Oil pastel on textured greybrown paper. A3.

Peonies on glass table. Coloured pencils (watercolour pencils), touches of white chalk. A2.

I should try to think of what each media is actually good for and then use it accordingly. The style of my oil pastel Celery with strawberries (see thumbnails) is not that different to the Peonies done in watercolour pencils or to my final Fish (above) in watercolours or the Paradise duck in gouache/postercolours for that matter.

They are all completely filled, attempted to be drawn as finely and naturalistically as I could and therefore all look very tight and über-controlled. I should be less Germanic than that. Loosen up a bit.

Where can you go to draw more animals? Think about the sorts of places that give you opportunities for animal drawing. Have you tried drawing a moving animal yet?

Well… in Hong Kong this could be at friends (dogs etc) or in front of supermarkets, where people leash their dogs outside. Or maybe the bird market for all these imprisoned singing birds. At home in Germany there was more variety… horses from the stable in the village where my mum lives; cats, sheep and goats at my dad’s. Cows munching grass.

Project: Drawing animals – fish on a plate

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939): Herring, 1918, Oil on canvas. 58 x 88.5 cm. The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Task: use e.g. water soluble pencils, inks + coloured pencils and Bockingford A3 paper. Experiment in your sketchbook first how you could tackle the colours, patterns, textures.

For years I had a postcard of Petrov-Vodkin’s Herring on my wall, bought when I studied in Russia for half a year. I had never seen it in person (it hangs in Petersburg) but even the little postcard of it always delighted me. I wonder how the colours appear in the real oil painting. Recently I got quite wary of internet pictures as people fiddle so much with the colour balance. (try image googling for “Petrov-Vodkin Herring” and you will see a plethora of tinted versions to choose from.) All I can say is that the colours in the digital version below correspond to the colours I had in my Russian postcard of it. The composition is simply marvellous, and I like the boldness in colour without the flatness – say of a Matisse. It comes across as almost naturalistic, yet it is highly altered: The fish and the table cloth echo the paper creases upon which the fish lies. The bread floats a bit compared to the rest as it lacks a deep shadow giving it some lightness while the potato and fish feel more heavy.
The composition is a harmonious mix of diagonals. The pink table gives the main ones, which are emphasised at a slight angle by fish and paper as well as the opposite diagonal formed by potato, bread up to the corner of the table in the upper right.

Sketch #1: Ink on Chinese gouache paper
Sketch #2: Poster colour on same paper, black ink pen and brown pastel pencil

My composition: Similar to Petrov-Vodkin I placed the fish as a diagonal from upper left to lower right. In order to get a balance I searched for a diagonal in the opposite direction by placing object into the upper right (a jar and some celery) and repeated this upward diagonal by creasing the paper on which the fish lay. The newspaper underneath repeats these diagonals in a slightly altered way.

Sketch #1 felt a bit boring. Ink doesn’t work well with this gouache paper though I could try this method on watercolour paper though. Sketch #2 uses gouache/poster colour on that paper, as the name suggested, and that worked better. The composition is richer than #1. I liked the spice jar with chilli as it supported the counter-diagonal to the main one of the fish. And the colour balanced the blue-greys and greens quite well.

Final drawing, stage 1: Fish on paper with spice jar. Watercolours on watercolour paper, uncropped version is 41x31cm, however I cropped the picture very slightly.

My fish was in the fridge for 3 days as I couldn’t get round to do the final “fish on plate” piece. Today was really the last day possible where you could bear to stand so close to it. Initially I had planned to have the poor thing for dinner, but that was before I stood in our small kitchen with it for 4-5 hours today. The more I looked the prettier became my fish, with lots of tender hints of colour and fine lines and patterns. I struggled with the reflections. I worked with watercolours and I tend to forget to work neatly and keep the final highlights clean. So the fish doesn’t look as shiny as it did. I have a small diagonally-cut flat brush that is excellent for texture when used with almost dry paint – I did that on the tail and the fins, which produced very gentle lines, more tonal, but with a bit of suggested pattern. I love greys. What different hues greys can have… but in order to produce a good grey I realised that you actually need colour here and there. I have some yellow greens in the fish and orange in the chilli jar.

I tend to overdo the same marks/colours/brush strokes,  becoming a bit repetitive. As a task for myself, , I tried to look at contrasts – like marks made with a wet and a dry brush, warm and cold, colour and grey, light and dark. I darkened the background several times.

Overall I am reasonably happy with the composition, aside from the upper left corner. You feel that I had forgotten all about this end of the world and then as the light was fading, I had to quickly finish something up there. This corner extends the line the fish is drawing and it draws me out of the picture. So I am thinking of putting my dark background into that corner too, limiting the piece of paper as my fish’s resting ground — or I just crop the upper bit. Then I would lose the detail of the spice jar’s lid. Something like this:

I cropped away a couple of cm on top and bottom end, but that created a different problem: lack of balance.

I would say that cropping it more simplified the picture. The spice jar lid was competing with the fish for attention – so getting rid of it is not bad. However now I have a different problem: Now the spice jar should be further to the right to balance out the main diagonal of the fish. Compositionally the fish is too heavy in this more cropped version. So my attention-seeking spice jar lid seems to have given weight to that corner.

So back to creating a diagonal in the upper left by cutting off the fish wrapping paper and adding a bit of dark background. I just did that (see below). I stop here and leave it like it is.





Final: Fish on paper with spice jar. Watercolours on watercolour paper, ca 41x29cm

The next day: A friend had a look at my fish and remarked on a couple of points which I thought were worth noting down:

  • the things (fish, paper, background, jar) in my picture feel like they belong to separate universes. For example the spice jar and background are not really unified. Using watercolours this could be achieved by first applying an overall tint to the entire paper. Also more specifically in opbecjts that are connected with other objects via reflections. For example I could try to apply a brownish wash to both jar and it’s reflection on the blue background before actually drawing both jar and background.
  • Watercolour has certain beauties and my drawing tries to will a lot of things that should come more naturally. Example: In the upper right corner there is a round green stalk bit left from the celery. I only quickly sketched it in leaving the typical watercolour marks where the pigments gather on the edge of the water spot. Apparently such an edge is “yummy” according to my friend. Whereas I drew such edges in myself – very tightly and controlled, e.g. around the fish or in the upper left where the paper and the background meet. This feels stiff and unnatural.
  • All colours should be in all things.
  • The background that is visible in all 4 corners looks very similar. But each corner should be an individualist, differing slightly in colour or treatment.

I also learnt that pinning things on the wall for some time to let the picture “cure” you will start feeling/seeing it better. I have to say my fish didn’t gain by pinning it to the wall for a couple of days. It became a bit boring and too spelled out.

In my final assignment for section 2 I would like to do something less stiff/more loose/more felt than spelled out.

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